Federal 'earmark' projects, once tainted by scandal, are back. Here are the CT Reps' requests

Photo of Emilie Munson
The Stamford Transportation Center in Stamford, Conn., photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, submitted a request for more federal funding for the improving the center.

The Stamford Transportation Center in Stamford, Conn., photographed on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, submitted a request for more federal funding for the improving the center.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

WASHINGTON — Highway overhauls. New sidewalks. Affordable housing. Water systems. Crisis teams. Even a hydroponic farm.

For the first time in a decade, members of Congress have the power to “earmark” billions in federal funding for specific local projects, reviving a process once pockmarked by corruption scandals and derided as pork-barrel spending.

Connecticut representatives submitted lengthy wish-lists this week to congressional leaders hoping to nab a few million bucks here and there for their favored projects.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, asked for $12 million to replace five bridges in his district. U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5, requested $3.3 million to improve a Route 39 intersection in Danbury. U.S Rep. John Larson, D-1, went all in, making $16 million for a study of improving Interstate 84 and I-91 in Hartford his lone transportation request.

At the center of it all is Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3. DeLauro campaigned last year for chair of the powerful House spending committee on a promise to bring earmarks back. She won. Now she’s overseeing the process to divvy about $15 billion between members’ requests.

“It is a massive undertaking,” DeLauro said in an interview.

DeLauro said she and Senate leaders revived earmarks so that members of Congress could have more control over federal spending and steer cash to high-quality projects supported by their communities. The idea is to shift more spending discretion from federal agencies to members of Congress who, the theory goes, know the needs of their districts better.

In practice, earmarks could also help secure members’ support for big spending bills. And they don’t hurt when it comes time for re-election campaigns.

Republicans did away with earmarks in 2011 on the heels of several corruption cases tied to earmarks and in an effort to rein in federal spending.

The rules are different this time around. Members have to make their submissions public and they must certify they don’t have a financial interest in the project. The money must go to government and non-profit projects and audits will be conducted on funding recipients.

In 2006, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, pleaded guilty to corruption charges for accepting illegal gifts, including overseas trips and casino chips, in exchange for delivering earmarks for a lobbyist who requested them on behalf of a client.

The same year, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors and keeping a “bribe menu” that showed how groups could buy his influence.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in 2005 asked for a $231 million earmark for an Alaska bridge project that gained the nickname “bridge to nowhere” for serving few residents despite its high pricetag. Young withdrew his request after intense criticism.

Some Republicans opposed the return of earmarks and 15 Senate Republicans signed a letter in April saying they would not “participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse.” But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who leads that chamber’s Appropriations Committee, announced earmarks were coming back to the Senate this week.

DeLauro, whose requests were the largest in the Connecticut delegation, insisted she and Leahy have infused enough transparency into the process to avoid scandals like those of the past.

“I think that what we are trying to do is to take into consideration what were some of the prior criticisms of the process as well to correct some of the areas that created abuse of the process,” she said.

Previously, DeLauro and her staff, as well as other members of the House Appropriations Committee, spent weeks training for more than 1,500 congressional staffers and members on how to make earmarks under the new system.

Representatives this week submitted requests for community and transportation projects to receive funding through the budget and a transportation reauthorization bill. Other infrastructure projects could win funding through President Joe Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan or other federal funding sources.

Members could submit up to 10 transportation and 10 community earmark requests. Several said they expected two or three of their projects could get funded, although DeLauro declined to put an exact number on it. One percent of discretionary appropriations funding will be directed at these community projects.

On the transportation side, each member will get $15 million to $20 million worth of projects aproved, a congressional staffer said. Transportation requests are approved by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Or., and his staff.

Members’ requests will be approved in May and June.

Himes said he got dozens of submissions from the towns, community groups and nonprofits after he solicited requests.

“Some of them were just way too much money... or they were very hard to fit in one the appropriations buckets,” Himes said. “Since none of us have ever done this in a decade, neither the applicants nor we frankly were super well-trained. We had to really learn what’s an appropriate amount and what’s an appropriate account.”

In addition to bridge projects in Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Trumbull and Wilton, Himes asked for $3.5 million to renovate the Stamford Transportation Center, $2.7 million to improve traffic signals in Bridgeport and $1.9 million for pedestrian and bicycle improvements in Ridgefield. He sought money to upgrade a domestic violence shelter, finish an affordable housing complex, dredge the Saugatuck river, expand an advanced manufacturing training center and build a hydroponic farm and community outreach center in Bridgeport.

The largest earmarks from any Connecticut representative were multiple $20 million requests from DeLauro for improving the New Haven Line train tracks, fixing up New Haven’s Union Station, repairing Waterbury line train platforms, replacing the I-95 bridge in West Haven, upgrading the I-91/I-691, Route 15 exchange in Meriden, upgrading traffic signals in Middletown and fixing downtown streets in New Haven. She’s also pushing for millions for the New Haven bus system and neighborhoods improvements.

DeLauro is also seeking $2 million to fund a community crisis team in New Haven that would dispatch human service providers through the 911 system. She asked for a few million each for new manufacturing programming at New Haven Public Schools, a water project for a contaminated area in Durham, a business incubator in Middletown and other projects.

Larson kept his transportation list short: $16 million for the Greater Hartford Mobility Study examining redesigning I-91 and I-84 in the area. He also requested support for nine community projects, including $625,000 for a Hartford-based team to respond to gun violence.

Hayes requested millions for intersection and bridge projects in Simsbury, Morris, Middlebury, Meriden and Brookfield. She requested money for remediating a former high school in New Britain, contructing a wastewater treatment facility in Cornwall, replacing sidewalks in Avon, improving a firehouse in Northfield, building an animal control facility in Torrington, installing parking in Newtown, upgrading telehealth at Sharon Hospital and funding basketball with a cop in New Britain.

Courtney asked for millions for bridges, sidewalk projects, road and trail improvements in his district. Courtney also sought $3 million to expand the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and $2 million to help remediate crumbling foundations, among other requests.

Senators will have their own opportunity to make submissions in the coming weeks.

DeLauro, her staff and federal agency officials will spend the next two months reviewing the submissions, vetting them and selecting ones to be funded. She said Connecticut projects will get no leg up over other states’ submissions just because she’s the House Appropriations chair.

Himes said he speculated the process would result in slightly more money for appropriators and senior members of Congress.

“What’s that great line in ‘Animal Farm’? All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others,” Himes quipped laughing. “It won’t surprise me if some pigs are more equal than others.”

Editor’s note: this article was updated to include new information from Rep. Larson’s office regarding his project submissions.

emilie.munson@hearstdc.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson